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Med Confl Surviv. 1997 Jan-Mar;13(1):3-25.

The social, cultural and political dimensions of contemporary war.

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  • 1Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, London.


There have been more than 160 wars and armed conflicts since 1945, almost all in the Third World, and more than 50 currently. More than 90% of these are internal rather than between sovereign states. There has been a sixfold increase in the number of war refugees worldwide since 1970, who now number 1% of the global population. Ninety per cent of all casualties are civilians. A key element of modern political violence is the creation of states of terror to penetrate the entire fabric of grassroots social relations as a means of control. The valued institutions and ways of life of whole populations are routinely targeted for destruction. In the 1980s many such wars were played out on a terrain of subsistence economies. The back-drop is of environmental degradation, poverty, embedded social injustice, pressure on the nation-state, a global rise in food insecurity and a widening gulf between the wealthiest 20% and the poorest 20% in the world. The World Health Organization is warning of a health catastrophe, with life expectancy in the world's poorest countries falling by the year 2000 and one-third of the world's children undernourished. Understanding a complex and evolving set of causes and effects surrounding war is a considerable challenge to the international humanitarian field, not least the health professions. In recent years there has been a burgeoning interest in the psychological impact of the atrocities of war, and in trauma programmes based on Western psychological concepts and techniques. This individualistic focus risks neglecting the core issue: the role of a social world, invariably targeted in war and yet still embodying the capacity of survivor populations to manage their suffering, adapt and recover on a collective basis. Using the example of Mozambique, Guatemala and others, this paper will discuss the way in which contemporary war damages social and cultural forms, and the range of traditions, values and understandings which these carry. However, society and culture also engage actively with war, with changes in the social order that may come to outlast the violence itself. This paper will also pinpoint the quest for justice as an issue that may distinguish the subjective experience of war from those that arise after peacetime or natural disasters. The work of anthropologists, sociologists, historians and poets in both West and Third World, allied to the voices of survivors themselves, can help the humanitarian field to acquire a more richly textured understanding of the range of responses to war and atrocity, and outcomes over time.

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